Elephants in the Room

History Will Remember George H.W. Bush Kindly

The United States owes a great debt to its 41st president.

Vice President George H.W. Bush at a press conference on April 7, 1983 in Helsinski. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)
Vice President George H.W. Bush at a press conference on April 7, 1983 in Helsinski. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

By Will Tobey

Any of us who worked in his White House can provide multiple stories illustrating the late U.S. President George H.W. Bush’s constancy, modesty, integrity, decency, patience, prudence, and intelligence, all tinged with a self-effacing sense of humor. A good example is an anecdote he told on himself. During the 1988 presidential campaign, his mother, Dorothy, called to say that he was doing fine, but that she wished he wouldn’t talk about himself quite so much. When he left office in 1993, his qualities reflected well upon him. Today, they are incandescent.

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By Kori Schake

I was the NATO desk officer in the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1992, one of the technocrats sweating the details of a united Germany. Chancellor Helmut Kohl understood windows of opportunity open and close, and he was willing to trade Germany’s NATO membership to get Russian support for unification; the leaders of France and Britain, despite being Germany’s closest allies, opposed the country being made whole again. President Bush’s decency so marked his administration that German government officials trusted us to discreetly work with them to foreclose options their chancellor would take, and they trusted the U.S. president would not compromise their future by giving in to France and Britain’s fears. We’d have had a very different end of the Cold War if Bush had not been so solidly trustworthy. The personal integrity of Bush was a strategic asset for the United States.

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By Phil Levy

My remembrance of President George H.W. Bush is summoned up by a photograph from nearly 27 years ago. In it, a much younger version of myself stands posed, grinning, between President and Mrs. Bush at a Christmas party.

It was my first chance to meet a president of the United States in the White House, and I was awestruck. The most powerful man on earth! Leader of the free world! But even at that callow stage, it dawned on me that the act of taking that photo said a great deal more about the president and Barbara Bush. While my moment captured on film was a brief one, for them it was a single click in an evening of an endless receiving line and countless firings of the camera flash.

This was not something they did just for the great and the powerful. I was so lowly at that point that I actually had “junior” in my job description—a barbaric practice since abandoned in the modern age of title inflation. The photo line was something the Bushes endured because they knew how much it would mean to the staff. We all left our brief encounters beaming, with a story to tell family and a picture to place on our parents’ mantels. They, meanwhile, warmly greeted the next in line and smiled for the camera, again and again. If memory serves, that particular evening party was one of 17 held that season.

It was a different conception of leadership, where power was coupled with grace, responsibility, and a sense of noblesse oblige. Bush was a man of character. As is often the case, it was best revealed when almost no one was looking.

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By Peter Feaver

I did not work in the George H.W. Bush administration, but when I reflect on his life of service, three remembrances loom large. First, he was mocked and vilified by partisan elites all out of proportion to any real defects—and he bore it with greater grace and decency than any other president in our modern era. My students today are surprised when they learn about the hyperbolic critiques leveled at Bush in the heat of the 1992 presidential campaign. Of course, politics ain’t beanbag, and he occasionally threw a sharp elbow himself. But comparison and contrast with our current era is obvious and instructive. I cannot help but wonder if the overdone critique of Bush (and, for that matter Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush) actually paved the way for the politics of President Donald Trump: If the left is going to turn someone as decent as George H.W. Bush into a grotesque caricature, why not embrace the caricature and go with someone who can dish it out in equal measure?

Second, I served in the White House early in the Bill Clinton administration, when memories of that campaign were still fresh. I was a junior staffer on an all-hands-on-deck event that brought back multiple dignitaries, including former President Bush (and others)—I think it was probably the famous Yasser Arafat-Yitzhak Rabin handshake event on the South Lawn on Sept. 11, 1993. One of my colleagues was staffing Bush, basically shepherding him through various wickets and serving as a gofer; I was staffing the gofer. As the day unfolded, it was clear how genuine and warm was the affection of all the nonpolitical White House staff for Bush—and how easily it was reciprocated in kind. He called out several of the stewards by name and had the kind of brief pull-aside moments of connection that were the “selfies” of that era. This was at a time when there were multiple reports of friction between the Clintons and the staff, and the contrast really struck me and my colleague.

Third, nowadays it is fashionable to pretend that there is nothing good to be said about the foreign-policy elite establishment. Trump is president today because he effectively sold this canard to a sufficient portion of the electorate. Yet Bush is a powerful reminder that the quintessentially establishment virtues of preparation, experience, wisdom, attention to detail, attention to due process, and prudence are especially conducive to good foreign policy. No president in the modern era embodied them more than Bush did. And judging from the encomia offered on his behalf in recent days, no president in modern memory has risen further in the popular imagination from the caricature his political opponents painted in the day than has President George H.W. Bush—precisely, I would argue, because of those establishment virtues. Of course, Bush did not have a perfect record in foreign policy, but history has been kind to him and will likely be kinder still as time goes by.

As a country, we are greatly in the debt of Bush and his administration, and the best way we can honor his legacy is by cultivating the virtues in our own lives that he sought to cultivate and practice in his.

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By Dan Runde

I met Bush for the first time at a Sunday pancake breakfast in 1992 hosted by New Hampshire Gov. Judd Gregg and former Gov. Hugh Gregg during that state’s primary. (I was a volunteer in the state for Bush’s re-election campaign.) At the breakfast, I was wearing a tie with all of the flags of the world on it. Bush noticed it right away and said, “I have that exact same tie.” For my 20-year-old self, that was worth all the stamp-licking, pamphleteering, and sleeping on couches, and I drove with the famous “Annoy the Media, Re-elect Bush” bumper sticker on my car throughout the summer and autumn.

I also did an internship at the Bush White House in the fall of 1992. When Bush lost in November to Bill Clinton, the interns at the White House were given a chance to write letters to him. I took a lot of time, earnestly writing about how I thought he ought to have no regrets and that he had been so well prepared for the presidency as former head of the CIA, a former congressman, former envoy to China, and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in addition to having been vice president. Within 48 hours, I received a thoughtfully typed-up letter addressed to me, with my address marked as the White House Executive Office Building (a nice touch), that sincerely thanked me for my letter with a real Bush signature (as opposed to one of those awful stop-start auto-pen signatures that everyone could tell were fake).

After 25 more years working in and around government, I have several other reflections of former President Bush. First, he was no “wimp” as the (hostile) press tried to brand him. On Dec. 3, 1990, a coup attempt began in Argentina, the fourth after the return of democracy there in 1982. Bush was to arrive Dec. 5. I was told by a senior State Department official later that the Secret Service recommended that Bush not go to Argentina because it could not guarantee his personal safety. Despite the personal danger, Bush went anyway and spoke to both houses of the Argentine Congress, giving a boost to President Carlos Menem and his policies of reforming the country. Menem was eternally grateful, and this began an era of good feelings between Argentina and United States that lasted for about 10 years. Argentina broke in early 1991 with its decades of “nonaligned” foreign policy and sent three ships as part of the Gulf War coalition.

Second, Bush believed in the value of allies and relationships. He really worked at U.S. relationships, because he knew America needed friends. Finally, his foreign policy and “grand strategy” have gotten more and more appreciation in the post-Cold War world. The late Bill Martel wrote a very dense but important book about grand strategy in 2015, and his take was that George H.W. Bush was the most successful of America’s four post-Cold War presidents at that point. (I wrote about Martel’s book here.)

I have a photo from the pancake breakfast and the autographed letter framed in my home office. I am going to miss America’s 41st president.

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By Will Inboden

In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks distinguishes between the “resume virtues” and the “eulogy virtues.” Resume virtues are those professional qualities of skills, accomplishments, qualifications, and successes that a curriculum vitae exists to highlight. Eulogy virtues are those that are spoken of at a funeral—the personal qualities and character that a person is to be remembered by, the things that matter most in a life well-lived. What is most notable about former President George H.W. Bush is that his remarkable life fused the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. His many professional accomplishments, almost unsurpassed by any other American in public life, all stemmed from his sterling personal character. His fidelity to duty, honor, and country shaped his decades of national service and leadership, even as his integrity, resolve, discipline, and surpassing kindness and decency marked his conduct in all aspects of life. He represented the best of America, and it is much the better for having been led by him during some of the most consequential moments of the 20th century. During our troubled current era, may we dedicate ourselves anew to being worthy of his legacy.

William Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Phil Levy is Senior Fellow on the Global Economy, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and teaches strategy at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Schoool of Management.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
Daniel Runde served in the George W. Bush administration at USAID. He also worked at the World Bank Group (IFC). He currently holds the William A. Schreyer Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Will Inboden is executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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